When Earl Johnson first arrived at Trinity Catholic in 1992, it did not take long for him to realize he wanted to leave and go back to school in Port Chester, where he was raised.
“It was a whole different environment going from a public school to a Catholic school,” Johnson said. “Now we wear shoes and a tie and a blazer to school when I’m used to wearing anything I wanted. I’m not around my friends anymore and a whole new cast of people. I cried to my mother and grandmother in my kitchen in Port Chester and said please let me transfer. My dad told them please don’t let him leave. They told me to try it one more year and if you’re not happy we promise you can leave.”
Johnson paused for effect.
“But after that the rest was history,” Johnson added.
Of my many memories covering Trinity Catholic and Mike Walsh, who resigned last Wednesday as head coach in an announcement that was made yesterday, I will never forget a Friday afternoon in the school gym.
The Crusaders, in 1996, would go on to avenge a championship loss the previous year to Northwest Catholic and win the first of seven state titles with a 69-63 victory. Johnson, a senior who cautioned his teammates he might not pass as much as usual for this game, scored 38 points.
I’m not sure how the subject came up, but the day before, while interviewing Johnson for a preview story, he wanted to issue a reminder to those critical of the out of town players who started to ignite what would become a memorable two-decade run for a tiny private school in Stamford.
“Everyone talks about what we do for the school,” Johnson said. “Nobody talks about what the school does for us.”
That is an important reminder of the impact Walsh had during a 39-year career that ended last week with 633 wins, the fourth-most in state history, seven state and six FCIAC titles. The Crusaders made a remarkable seven straight CIAC final appearances from 1999-2005.
We can talk about the advantages enjoyed by schools of choice that continue to this day, a thorny problem that gets tap-danced around but never solved. Private schools of course enjoy a competitive advantage. Some of Trinity’s best players — Johnson, Rashamel Jones, Torey Thomas — were part of a Port Chester to Stamford pipeline that elevated the Crusaders into a state power.
But it would be unfair not to also acknowledge the opportunities Walsh provided for a number of players who admittedly would have otherwise faced rocky futures. The Port Chester players in particular have often conceded uncertainty whether they would have succumbed to the mean streets.
“Coach Walsh was everything,” said Johnson, who now resides in Syracuse and stays in touch with his former coach. “I got acclimated and then I liked wearing the tie, and I liked wearing the blazer and the shoes and everything just changed. Me going to Trinity was bigger than what they saw with me on the basketball court.”
Jones went to UConn and won a national championship. Johnson played at Rutgers and Iona. Thomas helped lead Holy Cross to the NCAA Tournament and has played professionally the last 11 years in Europe. Dave McClure, who was from Ridgefield, went on to play at Duke. Two Stamford players also flourished: Craig Austrie started for UConn and Schadrac Casimir just transferred for his final year of eligibility to Florida Gulf Coast from Iona, where he was the MAAC Rookie of the Year.
Thomas and McClure, who is working for the Indiana Pacers, have remained in basketball. It is telling how many of Walsh’s players are now giving back, working with and coaching children in various capacities, including Johnson, Austrie and Jones. John Smyth, who went to Princeton and was Walsh’s first Division I recruit, for many years was an assistant coach at Trinity. Tevin Baskin, another Stamford resident who made it to Division I, is now a college assistant.
And these are just the names you probably know. There are three to four dozen more who played collegiately and have gone on to success in a number of different fields.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is any player that I’ve had who has graduated from Trinity has been able to go on to the next level in education, and that’s more important to me than any state championship or anything of that nature,” Walsh said. “I want to be able to help students accomplish that.”
Walsh opened doors for players that otherwise might not have been available. He was an experienced recruiting tour guide. People forget that Austrie originally gave a verbal commitment to UMass, but changed his mind after coach Steve Lappas left.
“At that time I didn’t know anything about the recruiting process,” Austrie recalled. “My parents didn’t know. The only one I could really fall back on was Coach Walsh. The opportunities were endless. Obviously we had talent but the little things in terms of talking to coaches and helping with the recruiting process. It was something very valuable and I’ll always cherish. He pointed me in the right direction and I’ve been going that way ever since.”
Johnson said he might have had an entirely different life if he didn’t like the benefits that came with adhering to Trinity’s dress code.
“Nobody knew anything about that stuff,” he said of being recruited. “Not knowing the intricacies of a clearing house and getting on an AAU team and all that. That was all him caring. Taking care of the academics. He was on top of all that stuff.”
Thomas arrived at Trinity on a different plane. I remember my first interview with him as well; Walsh prefaced it by saying wait until you hear this kid. The freshman compared playing basketball to elements he had learned in science class.
“I’m very happy for all that he accomplished in his career and made me part of a great tradition at Trinity that we still hold high to this day,” Thomas said. “Because of all that we accomplished at Trinity together.”
The Crusaders’ record under Walsh speaks for itself. Many, because of the extended talent pool available, may want to attach an asterisk even though no state rules were broken. They capitalized on the edge better than most.
But at the same time lets remember the better lives many players were afforded by playing at Trinity Catholic.
There are no asterisks there.